National Collegiate Honors Council


Date of this Version



Published in Honors in Practice, Volume 6. Copyright 2010 National Collegiate Honors Council


As the faculty advisor for the Pittsburgh Undergraduate Review (PUR), a professionally refereed undergraduate journal devoted to publishing scholarly papers across the disciplines, I found the following passages from Ellen Buckner noteworthy: “It is assumed that the honors work is an original piece of scholarship and prepared according to accepted standards for a written paper . . . ” (149); and “the project’s scholarly accomplishment . . . ” should be conveyed in a summary or abstract (150). I agree that demonstrating scholarly accomplishment is a worthy goal of publishing academic work; I would also emphasize that scholarly accomplishment is different from originality. The significance of this subtle distinction is a central topic of this paper, which includes discussion of whether originality is an appropriate condition for the publication of undergraduate work. Though scholarly accomplishment and originality are different criteria for publication, they have in common the idea that an author is not merely building on someone else’s ideas; I shall refer to this common feature as the independent character of the work. Note the synthesis making this article a piece of independent work: I am conceiving of this project and composing it on my own; however, it is not original in that the origin of the idea about the importance of a work making a scholarly contribution is someone else’s article. So even if a given work is not original (e.g., this article), it still can make a scholarly contribution by virtue of its being an instance of independent work. I will argue that emphasizing the scholarly contribution of independent but not necessarily original work sharpens our expectations of good, scholarly (undergraduate) work and avoids the pitfalls associated with requiring that work be original to get published.

My point does not depend on whether Buckner (among others) and I are merely operating on different definitions of “original.” My point is that we might be better served by striking the concept of originality as a condition of (undergraduate) publication. Moreover, by replacing originality with independent scholarly contribution as a condition of (undergraduate) publication (and institutional support more broadly), I am not suggesting a merely terminological change. As I will show, these two conditions entail different conceptions of what constitutes scholarly quality. I wonder if originality, though often invoked in scholarly contexts, has come to lack significant content.